No dramas. No histrionics. Just a potentially tricky match negotiated with the minimum of fuss to become the first team to secure their place in the semi- finals of this season’s William Hill Scottish Cup. All in all, a highly satisfactory afternoon for Hibs boss Pat Fenlon.
The fact it was far from a rip-roaring Cup tie mattered little, the Easter Road side having all but made certain the game was over almost before it had begun with two goals in the opening 20 minutes. Thereafter Hibs played well within themselves although, to be fair to the First Division outfit, there were a couple of second half scares as you might have expected from a team which had claimed the scalps of three other SPL clubs, namely Inverness Caley, Hearts and St Mirren, en route to the semi-finals of the Scottish Communities League Cup.
Oh, and don’t forget they’d sent Hibs home with their tails between their legs 14 months earlier, Mark Roberts’ goal enough to end the Capital club’s Scottish Cup hopes for another season.
Today, though, all eyes are not just on one trip to Hampden, but two. Hibs, like their semi-final opponents Aberdeen would no doubt have been delighted to avoid treble-chasing Celtic in the draw, and now know only those 90 minutes stand between them and a return visit to the national stadium at the end of May.
It’s a scenario which looked somewhat fanciful only a few weeks ago, but since scraping past Cowdenbeath at Central Park there can be no denying Hibs have slowly, but surely, shown signs of improvement. Perhaps not enough to convince anyone other than those draped in green and white that their 110-year wait for this particular piece of silverware is about to be brought to an end, but there’s no reason not to dream.
“Why not?” replied James McPake when asked if the thought of becoming the first Hibs captain to lift the Scottish Cup since 1902 was lingering at the back of his mind, the defender adding: “We are in the semi-final, it all opens up and we have as good a chance as anyone else.
“It was a massive result against Ayr to get us there, but that’s something to look forward to for us.” Fenlon, however, offered a well-timed word of caution. The Irishman, who has made no secret he’d take SPL survival over Cup glory any day, said: “It’s a semi-final, nothing else,” before acknowledging that given the trials and tribulations of the season so far, the long-suffering fans – more than 3000 made the journey to the west coast – were entitled to enjoy the moment, the first time Hibs have reached this stage of the competition in five years.
Hibs’ love-hate relationship with the Scottish Cup, Ayr’s impressive record against SPL opposition this season, not to mention last season’s win against the Easter Road side and the First Division club again enjoying home advantage at their ramshackle Somerset Park all made it a test of nerve for Fenlon’s players, all those aboard the team coach well aware many were tipping another giant-killing act at their expense.
Striker Roy O’Donovan admitted as much, saying: “You could feel the tension before the game because our fans were so eager for us to progress as were we players. We knew they had a good record at home all season in cup games.”
O’Donovan, though, settled those nerves, stooping to meet George Francomb’s pinpoint free-kick and guide his header in off the left hand post of goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert before Hibs enjoyed a helping hand from referee Steven McLean who was possibly the only person inside the ground to spot Ayr’s Andy Geggan manhandling Isaiah Osbourne to the ground while everyone else’s eyes were on the flight of Francomb’s corner.
He had no hesitation in pointing to the spot, a decision which infuriated Geggan who pleaded his case saying: “When you are in the box everyone is holding each other, I didn’t think it was a penalty.”
Unsurprisingly, his manager Brian Reid was of the same opinion. He said: “The referee thought he was pulling him but no-one else did. You never saw any Hibs players moaning and that’s a giveaway. If you are giving penalties for things like that then there are going to be an awful lot of penalties.”
Reid, of course, is a former defender but perhaps those entrusted with keeping the back door shut today need to be aware of referees tightening up on the bumping, blocking and boring that goes on at set-pieces with McLean’s decision similar to that of his colleague Crawford Allan in awarding Hearts a spot-kick at Ibrox the previous week, the official again the only one who apparently saw Dorin Goian’s hold on Andy Webster. And, as Hibs striker Leigh Griffiths pointed out, the incident in the League Cup semi-final against Celtic which saw Falkirk’s Darren Dods penalised. He said: “Refs seem to be clamping down on it now.
“There was a long time when that kind of thing went unpunished, but refs seem to be clued up now and have started giving them.”
Once more television cameras backed the ref, Geggan clearly seen wrestling Osbourne with McLean only a few yards away. While the Hibs man probably had little chance of getting to the ball, his opponent’s action ensured he had no chance at all.
Griffiths made the most of an opportunity to end a goal drought stretching back to January 21, rifling in a shot from 12 yards which was so ferocious it ripped the net from it’s moorings.
He said: “I didn’t know I had burst the net at first. We went back to halfway for the restart and I asked the referee why he hadn’t started the game and he said I’d burst the net.”
The two goal lead allowed Hibs to play within themselves although further opportunities came and went, Cuthbert pulling off a terrific save from Griffiths who then sent a low shot whistling just wide, Chris Smith superbly blocking Pa Kujabi as he looked certain to score, Osbourne scooping the ball into the goalkeeper’s arms and Jonathan Tiffoney booting a Paul Hanlon header off the line.
Ayr, though had their moments, Hibs goalkeeper Graham Stack saving Geggan’s pointblank header and referee McLean waving away strong penalty claims when the ball struck the hand of substitute Matt Doherty. Again, however, the official appeared to have called it right, the big defender having slipped as the ball struck him.
Fenlon and his players will no doubt reflect that they’ve played better and lost in recent weeks but, as always, in Cup competition winning is all that counts as O’Donovan insisted.
He said: “We started and finished well and in between we probably were not great. But it was a good, professional job I suppose.”